Secular Buddhism? I’m Skeptical.

Buddhism is often put in a different category from other world religions. It’s been called nontheistic or atheistic, even not really a religion but a philosophy, or just a “way of life.” This all may seem harmless, but it is not OK.

Categorical assertions that Buddhism is atheistic/nontheistic are deeply problematic because they erase centuries of history of how Buddhism was actually practiced by people across Asia – people whose practices were jeered at and dismissed as “superstitious” and “irrational” by white, western missionaries.

This must be borne in mind when dealing with the Secular Buddhist movement. One of its main proponents is Sam Harris, an outspoken atheist. In his book, Waking Up, Harris claims to be promoting a “Buddhism shorn of its miracles and irrational assumptions.” (p.27).

Think about that for a moment. Sam Harris is white, wealthy, and American. Most Buddhists are none of those things. Yet he feels free to criticize their faith as “irrational.” That is a demonstration of privilege in action.

That is why I am skeptical of Secular Buddhists.

4 thoughts on “Secular Buddhism? I’m Skeptical.

  1. I had never heard of Sam Harris before reading about him here, and that actually made me really mad.

    I agree with you that Buddhism is grossly misrepresented in the West. It’s not that Buddhism doesn’t have an atheistic tradition, because it does; even Hinduism has its atheistic Charvaka tradition. But that ignores the reality of a Divine-worshipping Buddhism that has always existed. And I run into this all the time with white Buddhists. When I was in law school, I joined a Buddhist meditation group in my town, only to discover they were re-naming themselves the Humanist Buddhist Meetup or something like that, because (as they explained to me) you can be a humanist and a Buddhist because Buddhism is atheistic. I was one lone theist in a sea of atheists so I didn’t say anything. But I definitely had a problem with that characterization of Buddhism.

    May I suggest you write and publish a book about Buddhism? You write really well and are knowledgeable on the subject, and initiated into a Buddhist monastic order – you are qualified to write about Buddhism and take it back from the Sam Harris-types out there. I strongly encourage you to do so; I would read a book like that and I think other people need to as well.

  2. Sam Harris holds a NUMBER of problematic views. His leadership in the “Secular Buddhist” community is only one of them. I’d suggest googling him and having some Tums ready…

    It’s true that Buddhism doesn’t approach the gods like many other religions do. It’s not deity-centric; in Buddhism, generally speaking the gods are seen as sentient beings like us. They suffer and will die and be reborn eventually. However, in the Mahayana tradition at least, a number are said to be enlightened. Which ones are among that number is…a controversial topic.

    I’d love to write a book, and thank you so much for your kind words. But I don’t feel ready just yet. I still have a lot to learn. 😉

  3. Do you consider secular Buddhism a form of cultural appropriation? More and more, I am beginning to think that it is.

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